Ala. poultry growers face devastation after storms

AP News
Posted: May 11, 2011 3:24 AM
Ala. poultry growers face devastation after storms

Tom Parker shook his head and seemed near tears as he talked about all that he lost in an April 27 tornado that ripped apart the northern Alabama farm where he grew up and had spent much of his adult life raising chickens, cows and three children.

The tornado, one in a series of storms that killed more than 300 people in seven Southern states, demolished Parker's six large chicken houses, killed 140,000 2-day-old chickens and destroyed the family home. All that remained of the chicken houses were bits and pieces of metal siding.

"It's unbelievable how much damage there is. We're just totally wiped out," Tom Parker said. "We've lost 100 percent of everything."

Other Alabama poultry growers are faced with similar losses from storms that tore through the heart of one of the state's most prolific industries. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency estimates storms killed 3.2 million chickens and destroyed more than 200 chicken houses across the state, which ranks third in the production of broilers.

Ray Hilburn, membership director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, said the devastation shouldn't affect chicken or egg prices because the poultry business is so large in Alabama, but he noted that some growers "lost everything."

Ted New, live operations manager for the chicken processor Pilgrim's Pride in Russellville, said the storms killed about 1.5 million chickens in the Franklin County area in northwest Alabama.

Larry Emerson, broiler manager for Pilgrim's Pride, said the damage varied from farm to farm.

"Some houses were destroyed and birds blown completely away. Some houses, they had to go in and euthanize the birds," Emerson said.

Although producers face big losses, some help will be available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other Alabama growers have formed a relief fund to help their devastated colleagues rebuild homes and meet personal needs.

Even while they were coming to grips with their ruined operations, producers and local volunteers had to deal with the sudden demise of so many chickens and avert a health crisis.

State Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, of Red Bay, said officials worried that a big rain would cause runoff from the dead birds to flow into Upper Big Bear Lake, which provides drinking water for Phil Campbell and several other nearby towns.

"We were worried that all that decaying material was going to end up in our drinking water," Morrow said.

With the help of volunteer firefighters and area farmers, workers were able to use bulldozers to bury the chickens on local farms. By dealing with the problem quickly, crews managed to avoid the stench that would have come from thousands of dead birds.

"It would have been horrible. You would not have been able to stand out here and talk," Morrow said, standing in a field where chickens were buried.

The effect on the poultry industry paralleled the devastating impact of the storms that wiped out much of the neighboring towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, named for a railroad man who was one of the community's founders. Driving through some parts of Phil Campbell, it was hard to find a house that was still standing. A large church looked like someone had ripped the top off and stirred the inside with a giant spoon.

Parker, 57, said he's not sure whether he'll try to rebuild, but his 27-year-old son, Adam, knows he wants to keep farming.

"It (the tornado) put me out of commission. It took my home, vehicles, clothes. It got everything of mine. Everything I've worked for since I've been able to work is gone," Adam Parker said.

Adam Parker, who is married, said he feels must find a way to get the farm back up and running.

"I can get a job doing just about anything, if they want someone to work," he said. "But this is what I know."